TOURING THE NT has never been more popular. For caravanners, this means advance planning and booking is essential. Gone are the days when you could rock up at a caravan park in the late afternoon and choose from several sites. As soon as you know where you are going to be, and when, book it. And for caravanners who like to pull a free one night stand at a rest area, be advised that these fill early: every spot with a bit of shade is usually gone by lunch.
There are exciting and exotic destinations galore in the NT, and at least 10 could be considered “must see, must do” escapes from the drive.
For the sake of a sensible route, we’ll assume you cross the NT border from the south on the Stuart Highway. These top destinations are presented along this popular travel plan.
A rest area welcomes you when you enter the Territory and 94km up the Stuart Highway is Erldunda, with camping at the very nice Desert Oaks Resort. Book a site in advance at the Ayres Rock Resort Campground before driving out to Yulara and fuel up at Erldunda.
The Lasseter Highway heads west for 245km to Yulara. Free unpowered sites are available at the Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse and Curtin Springs Station, along with two rest areas. The Mt Conner lookout is worth a stop. Tours run from Curtin Springs. At Yulara, follow the signs to the campground.
Our second favourite NT escape is the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. This may be something of a tourist cliché, but it is still an unforgettable destination of mystery and majesty. Spend three or four nights and include a visit to the cultural centre, an Anangu Cultural tour, a walk around the base of the rock, sunset every night, a drive out to Kata Tjuta for the Valley of the Winds walk and sunset and, if possible on a clear night, treat yourself to the Sounds of Silence dinner.
While at Yulara, book a site at the Kings Canyon Resort to visit Watarrka National Park. You can also stay at the less crowded Kings Creek Station, but it does have the disadvantage of its 72km return distance from the canyon. Fuel up at Yulara for the 305km to Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon.
More information: www.environment.gov.au/parks/uluru; www.ayersrockresort.com.au.
FIT FOR A KING
Kings Canyon is the number five escape on our list, and three nights at a campground will give you the ideal two full days of exploring. Visit Kathleen Springs for a short walk, or even a 22km overnight walk to the canyon for the more energetic. At the main section of the park, the Kings Creek walk is also worthwhile. Allow a full day for the superb Kings Canyon Rim walk, with time for a picnic lunch at the Garden of Eden – to rush this walk would be a crime.
Now is a good time to book a site for your next stop, Alice Springs.
Caravanners with a 4WD and offroad van can continue on to Alice Springs via the 315km Mereenie Loop. A permit is required on the day of travel and can be purchased at the resort shop. Everyone else should fuel up at the resort and return via the 275km route to Lasseter Highway and Erldunda. Note that the tempting short cut via unsealed Ernst Giles Road is not recommended for caravans. Spend a night at Erldunda, or continue on to Alice Springs (another 300km).
The Henbury Meteorite Craters on the way to the Alice are worth a look, though the 16km to the conservation reserve is not suitable for vans. A rest area 5km up the Stuart is the only option if you don’t mind leaving your van behind.
The Stuarts Well Roadhouse offers a safe place to leave a caravan for those who want to take the 50km return 4WD track to Rainbow Valley.
More information: www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/watarrka.html; www.kingscanyonresort.com.au.
Alice Springs is our number one NT escape. A week here will easily fly by with activities and tours packed into every single day. Tourism Central Australia should be your first stop (after setting up camp).
Guided tours abound, but there is no reason not to do the sealed roads in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges on your own. Experienced 4WDers should not miss Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park (leave the van in Hermannsburg or Alice).
If you do join a tour, opt for a smaller company, such as Palm Valley Tours, while Outback Experience offers a fascinating guided tour to the Ewaninga Rock Carvings, Chambers Pillar and Rainbow Valley.
There is also lots of weird and wonderful wildlife to be enjoyed. Visit the Reptile Centre to hold a thorny devil, see a bilby at the Desert Park and hand-feed wild black-footed rock wallabies in the Heavitree Gap Lodge.
Stock up and fuel up in Alice Springs, and check the Barkly Tourism website for information on the route ahead. Determine how many days it will take you to get to the next stop (Mataranka, if you follow this itinerary) and book a site if you want to stay at the beautiful Mataranka Homestead.
Gem hunters and those who enjoy a station-style stay can head 68km up the Stuart and then 69km east to Gemtree to fossick for garnets and zircons. The tagalong garnet tour is great fun, but this should be booked in advance from Alice Springs.
For anyone interested in Aboriginal art, Aileron, 81km from Alice, has a fantastic gallery and is a great place to get out and stretch your legs. If you are not up to another 245km of driving to Wycliffe Well, Aileron is also a great place to spend the night.
Ti-Tree also has an Aboriginal art gallery along a short, unsealed road, Barrow Creek has an old Overland Telegraph Station, and Wycliffe Well, “the UFO capital of Australia”, promises “the more you drink the more you see” (aliens that is). The caravan park at the back is one of the nicest on the Stuart and a handy place to fuel up.
The unsurpassed scenic highlight of the Stuart is the Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve (530km from Alice). It is a popular stop and by mid-afternoon the very basic campground can become as crowded as a city parking lot. Wauchope is the closest camping alternative.
Another spot to explore from this little area is Davenport Range National Park. Leave the van behind and take a drive out to Whistle Duck Creek (4WD only). You can access Davenport Range NP about 15km north on the Stuart near the Bonney Well Rest Area. It is 51km east to Kurundi, then 24km south to Whistle Duck Creek.
Tennant Creek is usually one of the more cost-effective fuel stops along the way. The information centre is located at the Battery Hill Mining Centre and there are two caravan parks and a bush camp at a nearby horse centre. If you don’t mind driving another 100km north, Banka Banka Station makes a good one night stopover.
Renner Springs is next, followed by Elliott, where keen birdwatchers should head a few kilometres out of town to get some great views. Over the first cattle grid is a track on the left to Lake Woods (32km from Elliot), where you will find a bush campground near the lake.
About 25km up the Stuart from Elliot is the Newcastle Waters Historic Site and rest area, which commemorates the droving days along the surrounding stock routes. A good place to camp is 120km on at the Daly Waters Pub, but bookings must be made in advance for a site and the “beef and barra” barbecue. The road to the pub is on the west side of the Stuart. If you have another 93km of driving in you, Larrimah is a fun spot. There is WWII memorabilia at the Old Police Station, a very (odd) pink caravan park, and Fran’s Homemade Pies and Pasties across the street.
More information: www.centralaustraliantourism.com.
A RELAXING DIP
By now you will be panting for a break. But fear not, because Mataranka, our number 10 NT escape, is only a further 70km up the Stuart.
Elsey National Park encloses several natural hot springs, with water bubbling up at a perfect 34°C. Mataranka Homestead has the more organised campground, but the nightly entertainment may not suit everyone. Mataranka Cabins and Camping is closest to Bitter Springs and is much quieter and a bit more reserved. The Territory Manor Motel also has camping.
There are a number of historic sites at Mataranka relating to Jeannie Gunn’s famous novel, We of the Never Never, as well as other aspects of settlement. Be sure to book a site in Katherine before heading 105km up the Stuart. And from here on up you must be croc-wise.
More information: www.visitkatherine.com.au/pages/matarankaroper-river; www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/elsey.html; www.matarankahomestead.com.au; www.matarankacabins.com.au.
Katherine is number seven on our list of NT escapes, mainly due to Nitmiluk National Park.
The town itself offers travellers the chance to stock up on dwindling supplies. Caravan parks fill quickly and the sites are crowded, but the low level park is nice and, if all else fails, you can usually find a spot at Springvale Homestead.
The Katherine Gorge section of Nitmiluk National Park has a great caravan park and makes the perfect base from which to explore the area on foot or by boat (canoe or tour). At the quieter Leliyn campground (61km from Katherine), the walk to Upper Edith Falls leads to some scenic perfection. Book sites for both sections through Nitmiluk Tours. Three nights at the gorge and two nights at Leliyn makes a very good start.
Before leaving Katherine, book Kakadu caravan park sites in advance, and even in Darwin if you know when you will be there.
More information: www.visitkatherine.com.au; www.nitmiluktours.com.au; www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/nitmiluk.html.
AT THE TOP
To the north, Nitmiluk merges with Kakadu National Park, which is number three on our list of NT escapes. Boaters and 4WDers will want to call the Bowali Visitor Centre in advance to make sure the boat ramp at Yellow Waters, and/or the track to Jim Jim Falls, is open.
Kakadu Highway meets the Stuart at Pine Creek. Pick up the visitor guide and maps at the Mary River Roadhouse, which is also where you can get a park pass (also purchased online and at other locations in the park).
Caravanners looking for suitable national park campgrounds will first find the Gunlom Camping Area, accessed via a 37km unsealed road. Next is Gungurul, where the very basic facilities only extend to some toilets.
Mardugal is the closest caravan campground to the Warradjan Cultural Centre, Cooinda (with the Yellow Waters Wetland Cruise) and the 70km 4WD-only track to Jim Jim and Twin Falls. The Muirella Campground has an evening cultural cruise and is the closest camping to the superb rock art at Nourlangie and Nanguluwur. In the Ubirr area, the Merl Campground allows caravans.
Any RVers who want a few more creature comforts, such as power and a swimming pool, should head to Cooinda’s Gagadju Lodge, Jabiru’s Kakadu Lodge, or the Aurora Kakadu Lodge, near the South Alligator River on the Arnhem Highway. These three spots should be booked in advance. A few nights at each makes for a comfortable way to explore and enjoy all sections of the iconic Kakadu National Park.
If you have not already booked a caravan park for your Darwin stop, now is the time.
More information: www.kakadu.com.au.
ON THE RIVER
Exiting Kakadu on the Arnhem Highway, you soon arrive at number eight on our list of NT escapes, the Mary River National Park area (not to be confused with the Mary River section of Kakadu). Sixteen kilometres from the boundary of Kakadu is Point Stuart Road, leading north along the Wildman section of Mary River NP.
Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge (40km sealed road to camping for caravans) offers a wetlands cruise from Rockhole at the end of unsealed Rockhole Road, and dinghy hire at Shady Camp. Further along the Arnhem Highway is Mary River Park (on the left before the river) with a lovely campground, which is an ideal base from which to explore the area. Leave the van behind and do not miss, under any circumstances, the Corroboree Billabong Wetlands Cruise at the end of a 20km unsealed road.
Boats are also available for hire at Corroboree, as are houseboats. And Bird Billabong is another spot bird lovers will not want to miss.
Leaving the Mary River Park region, the Arnhem Highway presents more wetland scenery. Windows on the Wetlands has a visitor centre and a lookout. There is a jumping croc cruise at the Adelaide River crossing and the birdlife is prolific at Fogg Dam.
More information: www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/maryriver.html; www.maryriverpark.com.au; www.corroboreebillabong.com; www.pointstuart.com.au.
And so on to Darwin, our number six NT escape. Non-stop festivals through the touring season see caravan parks full to overflowing. Depending on how much you want to see and do, book a site closer to town and then maybe move further out to visit the Territory Park and Berry Springs. Alternatively, the Howard Springs Holiday Park is not a bad compromise.
There is no quicker way to arm yourself with information on the array of attractions than at Tourism Top End on the corner of Smith and Bennett streets.
More information: www.tourismtopend.com.au.
There is nowhere else to go from Darwin but south to Litchfield National Park, our number four NT Escape. RVers can base themselves at a caravan park in Batchelor – Litchfield Tourist Park is the closest to the north-west entrance of the park.
It is all about safe swimming holes and waterfalls here. Take the drive from Batchelor to Wangi Falls, stopping at every scenic site along the way, and you can’t go wrong. Two 4WD-only tracks lead to the Lost City and to Sandy Creek Falls. Some caravanners may prefer to stay at Wangi Falls. This end of the park can also be accessed via Litchfield Park Road from the Cox Peninsula Road near Blackmore.
Back on the Stuart, historic Adelaide River provides access to Daly River via Dorat and Daly River roads. This is the perfect consolation destination for anglers who can’t make it to Borroloola. Three caravan parks, barra fishing and mango farms: what more could you ask for?
About 57km south of the township of Adelaide River is the turn-off to the very popular Douglas Daly Tourist Park, with access to a hot springs and Butterfly Gorge. You can continue back through Katherine and on to Mataranka for another soak in the springs.
More information: www.litchfieldnationalpark.com.
THE FINAL LEG
So by now you should know the NT drill: plan your route and book sites in advance. From Mataranka, travellers with a high-clearance 4WD and an offroad van can access Cape Crawford via Roper Bar and Nathan River Road. Go online to check road conditions and river crossings before proceeding.
Everyone else should continue 170km to the Hi-Way Inn Roadhouse, fuel up, and turn east on the Carpentaria Highway to Cape Crawford and then Borroloola, our number nine NT escape. With a base at the Heartbreak Hotel, several days can be spent with 4WD tours up Nathan River Road and/or helicopter tours with Cape Crawford Tourism.
A few days up at Lorella Springs Wilderness Park is a highlight in itself. Fisherfolk will never want to leave King Ash Bay, just north of Borroloola. This is the Wild West of the Gulf. If nothing else, a drive up to Bing Bong is worth it just so you can casually mention that you have been there when you get home. From here, it is south on the Tablelands Highway to the Barkly, or for 4WDers, maybe a rougher ride along the Savannah Way to Qld.
The NT may not technically be a state, but in many ways, it is the state of the real Australia.
More information: www.capecrawfordtourism.com.au; www.lorellasprings.com.au; www.kingashbay.com; www.visitkatherine.com.au/pages/borroloola-the-gulf.